The word ‘gay’ is one of many semantically age-gradated words in the English language. Different generations will take it to mean different things. Those born pre-World War Two will define the word, in its first sense, as ‘happy’. Those born post-World War Two and up to the nineties will probably take it to mean ‘homosexual’, whereas the last two generations or so would probably define the word ‘gay’ as ‘something bad or loathsome’.
So when faced with what can only be expressed as language expressing homophobic sentiment on the playground, where do I stand? Do I let it pass me by? Do I say “Well done Jimmy for using a more modern sense of a word – atta boy!”? Or do I give a long lecture on the necessity of respecting people and their sexuality? This is also complicated by the fact that I am gay (or rather, homoromantic) myself.*
And, of course, ‘gay’ is not the only word used in the playground. Other words and phrases such as ‘batty boy’ or, sadly, ‘queer’ (usually prefixed with a profanity of the ‘f’ variety) form part of the common parlance for many students. Does this form part of the banter of adolescence or should it be treated as more serious?
There is, I think, a rather simple and effective way to educate students, especially on the use of the word ‘gay’. A student of mine shouted out the term in question the other day, without realising that I was present in the room. Upon hearing it used in the derogatory sense, I called the student over. He skulked towards me sheepishly.
“John**, would you use the word ‘straight’ in that way?” I asked.
He paused, his face moving from one of dejectedness to genuine inquisitiveness. A moment longer. “No,” he reasoned.
“So why do you use the word ‘gay’ like that then?” I replied.
His eyes searching, trying to think of the answer. He shrugs his shoulders.
“Well there you go then – don’t use ‘gay’ in that way.” He nodded and off I sent him.
When the queer is brought to bear upon the heteronormative, change can be enacted. Using a word associated with the queer world as a derogatory term is offensive, as it denies the visibility, credibility and inclusivity of the queer within modern society. It subconsciously elides and maligns the presence of anything which does not fit into the paradigm of heteronormativity and thereby validates the latter’s supremacy. Until school teachers, school leaders and leaders recognise this problem, we are a chasmic distance away from achieving any form of equality when it comes to sex and gender. Mercifully, however, we can get the ball rolling. One conversation at a time.
*This will be the subject of my next post.
** Different name used to protect anonymity
The Teaching Queer series is by our guest blogger A, a teacher who enjoys transcending social norms in the same way his limbs transcend typical biological restrictions on flexibility.